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Leading the blind

April 12, 2010

Since arriving in Tibet over two decades ago, the founders of Braille Without Borders have been working to empower the blind in Lhasa and beyond. Deutsche Welle talked with them about finding opportunity in disability.

Braille Without Borders co-founder Sabriye Tenberken with a student in Tibet
Braille Without Borders established a school for blind children in TibetImage: picture-alliance / dpa

Sabriye Tenberken and Paul Kronenberg are the co-founders and co-directors of Braille Without Borders. Tenberken was born in Cologne, Germany, and became blind at the age of 12. As a student of Tibetology in Bonn, she developed the Tibetan Braille script. With the help of Dutch engineer Paul Kronenberg, Tenberken established the Rehabilitation and Training Center for the Blind in Tibet to provide educational opportunities for some of the tens of thousands of Tibetans who are blind or severely visually impaired.

Deutsche Welle: What inspired you to help blind people in Asia?

Sabriye Tenberken: First of all, I'm blind myself, and I think that's reason enough. I had the feeling that I became a confident young women in my adolescence through many different reasons. First of all, I accepted blindness, and I didn't think that blindness was a handicap for myself. And I was also a little bit rebellious because I had the feeling, "Hey, why do other people tell me what I can do and what I cannot do? Why don't they just let me try - and try to find out what I am capable of doing?" And exactly this rebellious mood and maybe also this understanding of blindness as an opportunity - this was something I wanted to transfer to blind people wherever, it didn't have to be in Asia alone.

And, of course, as a student of Tibetology, you were interested in that country. How difficult was it to adapt the Braille alphabet to Tibetan?

Sabriye Tenberken: That was not difficult at all, because I learned the Tibetan writing system through a little machine called "Opticon" - it's a camera, and you put this camera over a piece of paper and then everything that is black and white is transferred into impulses, and I could read the actual letters with my hand. But I had to create this Braille system in order to be able to read wherever I wanted to, without the machine. And in this way, I created a system which is based on the six-dot Braille system and constructed with the general rules of the Tibetan syllable script, and it's a script that is one-to-one translatable. And later, it became the official Braille script for the Tibetan language, but that was a method which was constructed within two weeks.

Sabriye Tenberken, co-founder of Braille Without Borders
For Tenberken, blindness is an opportunity, not a disabilityImage: DW/ Matthias Müller

That sounds pretty quick! Paul, what does your organization, Braille Without Borders, do exactly?

Paul Kronenberg: Braille Without Borders is an organization that tries to empower blind and partially sighted people worldwide. We started, of course, with the focus in Tibet, where we have a preparatory school for blind children - a vocational training program where blind people are trained in different vocations such as animal husbandry, agriculture, market gardening, we have a cheese factory, a compost factory - lots of different vocations. There is a Braille book printing press and a self-integration project.

And the latest program is the International Institute for Social Entrepreneurs in the south of India where we train mostly blind and partially sighted people from all over the world in everything they need to know so that they can go back to their own countries and start social projects to create social change.

And how many people do you train there every year in Kerala?

Paul Kronenberg: We have a capacity of up to 32 people per year, and the first year we had 20 participants. They are now working on the realization of 16 projects in 10 different countries. And this year, we have 29 participants from 18 countries.

Where does the funding come from for Braille Without Borders?

Paul Kronenberg: Braille Without Borders depends on donations. We have several organizations that can take in donations, such as the Förderkreis Blinden-Zentrum in Germany. And in America we have a foundation, and in Switzerland. And Sabriye and I, we go around the world trying to raise enough funds to keep everything going.

Since you first went to Tibet in 1997, what has changed for blind people there?

Sabriye Tenberken: When I first came to Tibet, blind people were outcasts. They were not taken seriously in society. In fact, people thought that blind people were possessed by demons, and I met parents that didn't want to touch their own children. I think nowadays the picture has changed. People see blind people running around with their white canes in the city Lhasa, but also in the city Shigatse. They see them being very, very full of self-confidence. They see them talking in three different languages. And a lot of times, when people come to Tibet or come to Lhasa who don't know anything about blind people and then they see these blind people and maybe shout at them as they always did before, for example, "blind fool." Then we hear a lot of times that people from the Lhasa society turn around and say, "Hey, you cannot talk to them like that." Because they are not idiots; they are not "blind fools," they are very, very educated. And they are capable of contributing in a meaningful way to society. And I guess this has changed.

A student reads Braille during a course
Tenberken developed a Braille script for the Tibetan languageImage: picture-alliance/ ZB

All your life you have been very active on behalf of blind people. What is your biggest frustration? You sound so inspired, but there must be lots of problems you're facing as well...

Sabriye Tenberken: I guess that frustration is probably the starting point of a lot of motivation, a lot of things that we are doing. So frustration is never something really bad. My biggest frustration, of course, is when I feel that people are not taken seriously just because one sense or one thing in the body is not functioning as it used to. And people normally don't tend to see the chances or concentrate on the possibility - on the potential of the person. But they always concentrate on the disability, on the imperfection, on something that is not possible. And this is something that frustrates me, this is something that makes me angry, but this is also something that gives me the drive to construct something, to create something, to use this anger in a very constructive way.

This year, if I understand correctly, you were invited to the Davos World Economic Forum. And talking to these really important people, what impact do you think this kind of exposure has for you and also for your organization?

Sabriye Tenberken: We were not invited this year, but we were many times before. I'm not so sure if these forums are the right forums for us to talk, because these people have so many other things to be concerned about. And people who normally go to the World Economic Forum, they are very, very focused on efficiency - on things that go perfectly, things that go in a structured way, things that don't act as obstacles to their own causes. So, I do act as an obstacle: I am an obstacle, being not perfect, being a person that thinks from a different perspective. And I'm not so sure if my stay there was very effective for these people. Maybe one person or another thought in a different way afterwards, but all in all, I reach many, many more people who are also not perfect and who also see the world from a different angle, and because of the imperfection, create something new out of their lives.

A question to both of you: What is your vision for the future? You've already created so much.

Sabriye Tenberken: My personal vision for the future is that blind people, at some point, are not seen as people with a disability, but people with a certain potential that can contribute to society in their own way.

Paul Kronenberg: Of course, there are many, many other projects and ideas that we have because of the work we do right now, and we try to expand the program that we have now, and hopefully in the future, five or six years from now, we can go and travel from project to project in different areas that are being set up by are participants that are now participating.

Interviewer: Anke Rasper (arp)
Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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